Stephen Park reflects on a home Olympics and Rio 2016 cycle challenges

RYA Olympic Manager Stephen Park with the 2012 Olympic sailing medallists (back l to r) Saskia Clark, Hannah Mills, Luke Patience, Stuart Bithell (front l to r) Nick Dempsey, Ben Ainslie, the late Andrew ’Bart’ Simpson and Iain Percy The Olympic games 29th July- 11th August 2012 at Weymouth, Dorset.
Throughout the week, as we approach the anniversary of the 2012 Olympic Games on 27 July, we’ve been hearing from members of the 2012 British Sailing Team who reflect on their own Games experiences, how they themselves were inspired by 2012, and on life and sailing since the London Olympic flame went out and the focus switched to Rio 2016.

In our final #2012inspired blog of the series, Stephen Park, the British Sailing Team Manager, reflects on a home Olympics, and looks at the challenges the new Rio 2016 cycle will bring with new boats, new teams and a new venue to get to grips with:

Stephen Park, RYA Olympic Manager - The Olympic games 29th July- 11th August 2012 at Weymouth, Dorset.
The whole London Games I thought was fantastic. The country as a whole did a really good job – both the event, as put on by LOCOG, but also Britain as hosts did a great job and it was a fantastic time for the country. Certainly I very much got the impression that it was a time when everyone was smiling and happy with everything that was going on. It was a time to be proud to be British and we did put on a fantastic Games by any measure.

From the sailing side, it was a cracking regatta. The organisation was generally very good for both the Olympics and the Paralympics, and Weymouth and Portland played fantastic hosts and welcomed people from all around the country as well as international visitors. The spectating facility up on the Nothe was excellent and the best the sport’s ever had in terms of spectating at an Olympic Games before. I’m sure they’ll be keen to see if they can replicate some of that in Rio.

It was great to have been part of the Games, to have been part of an incredibly successful Team GB and for sailing to have played its part in delivering against the targets that we’d set with UK Sport.

It’s going to be incredibly hard for that to be matched going forward, both from an events perspective and from a performance perspective.

Looking back I don’t think that we had a particularly good regatta in terms of luck, with a few injuries and decisions on occasion going against us. But at the end of the day we’ve always known there’s the potential for that at any event, which is why you have to have a lot of medal opportunities in lots of areas. Although the medal count wasn’t as great as it was in China, I still believe that our team was more competitive in London that it was in 2008, but there’s no doubt that Olympic-level sailing internationally is now more competitive than it ever has been.

The Opening Ceremony night with the team being presented to the Weymouth public on the stage and then watching the ceremony on TV with the rest of the sailing team was pretty inspirational in terms of ‘right, here we go’.

The low for me was Percy and Bart not winning the Star regatta – that was probably the most emotional day because I really feel they’d sailed better than everybody else, so not to win that was tough. With Ben winning his gold it was obviously a fantastic, historic moment both for him and the sport, but also quite a bit of a relief after everything he’d gone through to win, and even in the medal race it was looking difficult at times. There, on that same day, you had the two extremes of how it can go for you or against you so easily.

I said before the Games that I hoped our home Olympics would give my daughter memories that would last a lifetime. In terms of sporting highlights from the Games, I actually think she could tell you more about them than I could across the different sports, and quite a few of her mates could as well! There’s no doubt in my mind that it was inspirational for loads of kids around the country and that it’s still something they talk about day in, day out. It’s the pinnacle of achievement to be involved and to strive for success.

There are a lot of Olympic legacy projects around the country that are seeing new people, new youngsters getting involved in new sports and it’s important and beholden on the governing bodies, the clubs, and the country as a whole to make sure we maintain that momentum and that enthusiasm and continue to celebrate success.

Olympic legacy also extends into sustainability, and managing to sustain success in terms of exposure and investment into sports. It would be nice to think that commercially, the business sector saw and experienced what Olympic sport has to offer in terms of a business opportunity. I think that they have seen that, but I think that as it happens right now we haven’t seen the investment levels that we would have hoped to have seen from business into Olympic sport continuing. People are nervous about the economy which makes it harder but ultimately it’s making sure that business gets a good proposition that makes good financial sense for them.

Our job is to try and make sure we’ve got a really good business proposition that merits good, solid investment into Olympic sailing. We’re still a very worthy investment and I’d like to think the Olympics has at least allowed the sport into the business consciousness, and that they realise when managed and activated correctly it can really deliver a good return for business.

There have been quite a few changes in the sport for this Rio 2016 cycle, particularly in terms of the new classes, and there are still changes to come in terms of the format of the racing.

Ben Ainslie, Finn - The Olympic games 29th July- 11th August 2012 at Weymouth, Dorset.

I think that having a new mixed boat in the Nacra 17 and the new women’s 49erFX skiff is great. They will attract more youngsters, they’re more easily accessible, easier transition from the youth events, fast, colourful, exciting and put a premium on athletic performance. Personally I think those things are good for the Olympics so I’m all for them.

Rio itself could be quite a different and difficult regatta depending on what happens with the format, but also with the weather. It’s forecast to be quite a light wind venue with quite a lot of tide so that could make it more interesting and challenging. But if we’ve got people who are sailing the fastest boats who are able to make better decisions than anybody else, and can sail as well on the last day of the regatta as they do on the first then we should be in pretty reasonable shape. Between now and then it’s about getting people into positions where they’ve got the confidence and can believe they can do that, and are doing that on a regular basis on the world circuit events.

In terms of our talent pool, we’re in a similar situation to post-Beijing in 2009 where have about 50% of our team who are returning proven performers and 50% are up-and-coming youngsters either keen to make an impression in a particular class, or knock somebody off their perch who’s maybe been there for a wee while.

We’ve had some pretty reasonable results at this stage of the cycle across the events – the 470 men and women are doing well, the RS:X windsurfers doing well, the Finns are continuing to do well, Ali Young in the Radial continues to be a medal contender and we’ve made good starts in the two new classes. Right now the ‘health’ of the squad is pretty good and certainly the World Championships we’ve got coming up will put a bit more pressure on those sailors to deliver performances at a key event where it really matters.

I think Rio’s going to be an exciting Games. I find when you go there you always feel very alive. Some of the changes in classes and format will be interesting, but it’s going to be important to see how and if we can manage to continue to see more new sailors coming to the fore and delivering those performances, and whether we can get a team of talented sailors to the level that we had in the run-in to 2012, with the confidence that we had in the run-in to 2012, in Rio. I think that we’ve got the sailors in the team to do that, and if we can do that for the fifth successive Olympic Games then that will be pretty impressive.

I feel confident in our medal targets, I’m also confident that the level of competition will be higher than it’s ever been before and it will be harder to win medals that ever before.

I’m looking forward to the next couple of years of getting the team settled into new boats and partnerships and firing on all cylinders, and getting the whole team and support team to Rio and really bringing that alive for everybody as we go towards what will ultimately be a different Games from the London Olympics. But will be an impressive Games which – if we can get some reasonable wind – will provide some impressive TV pictures for the world with an incredible backdrop.

That will be great for promoting our sport around the world and continuing to build sailing as a valid and vital part of the Olympic Games.

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